Our first adventure!
Welcome to Lapland, a magical place under a giant, never-ending sky, where curious reindeer look on as you head north through the ever-changing landscape.
Our journey started 250km inside the Arctic circle taking us to where the boreal forest eventually gives way to the sub-Arctic tundra.
The Lapland route is divided into 4 phases: River. Lake. Swamp. Tundra. None of us had every done anything like it before. Could we make it?
Our journey started 250km inside the Arctic circle taking us to where the boreal forest eventually gives way to the sub-Arctic tundra.
The Lapland route is divided into 4 phases: River. Lake. Swamp. Tundra. None of us had every done anything like it before. Could we make it?
Day 1. Bright sunshine. The team banter is flowing as we pick up supplies prior to drop-off, a mix of excitement and apprehension with the rapids our first challenge. Craig turns to Peter, our Finnish canoe outfitter: "We're saying 'no swimmers' " he chuckles. Peter grins behind his sunglasses, "Everyone swims on Ivalojoki".
Sun blazes through the windows as our minibus drives through an endless rolling sea of forest. We feel hot in our layers. Have we got our kit right? Despite the heat, it has rained for the last 2 weeks and the water levels are much higher than anticipated. After being dropped off we load our canoes and set off, one pair wedging themselves on a rock just 5m from our start point, much to everyone else's amusement. We re-group mid-river.
The river is moving at 6km/h with huge standing waves on many rapids. The weather is 4 seasons-in-an-hour. One rapid is run in brilliant sunshine as the rain chucks it down, making it impossible to read the water. After 6 successful rapids the team get delusions of grandeur and take on a grade 3, earning 2 capsizes.
A set of large waves further on sees a canoe swamp and pretty much sink, leading to a second swim for a lucky pair. The 4 soaked swimmers wade ashore into camp late that night and dry themselves around a fire. One of the team discovers their dry bags have failed them and more kit gets added to the drying line. The decision to push on a bit further and get to a campfire site with guaranteed firewood paid off.
During the night, a moose takes a dump in the middle of the camp and no one notices.
Day 2. A very wet start, packing the canoes in a downpour, setting off soaked to face 10 big rapids, the first of which is – thanks to some ... erm "cough" ambiguity in the canoe route – unexpectedly round the first bend, as 'first few km easy' becomes, 'white water as far as the eye can see'. Simon on point, disappearing as if being flushed down a giant U-bend, his Manc accent just audible as he shouts: "it's too late, we're committed, just go with it!". 1km of rapid with an 8m drop later we arrive together - one canoe having 360'd halfway down and another having 180'd and been slammed into a big rock before edging free and coming down the rest of the way backwards - to find 2 other boats doing the same at the bottom. There is much giggling. Wayne speaks first: "Well, I'm awake".
The rest of the day is relentless as a veritable water park of rapids are run. There's lots of bailing water out of canoes in cold, wet weather which, despite the excitement, leads to heads going down halfway through the day. Chatter is noticeably absent. People are tiring.
Mick suggests an unscheduled stop at a campfire site to get a huge fire going to warm up with an early lunch and morale soars, with banter and singing ensuing through a stunning stretch of forested fells. A huge owl flies across between the Scots Pines. A beautiful campsite on a steep slope by a stream is reached. That night it tanks it down, 2 tents are flooded.
Day 3. While 1 of the team enjoys stomach cramps and a touch of the squits, 2 others ferry a Finnish family across the river, who give them berries their children picked in thanks. A very wet, cold start but the rapids are completed. We re-warm ourselves with early lunch by a fire. No respite from the weather though. More rain ensues as we look for our campsite for the night. We make a damp stop in a grassy clearing in a birch forest, which seems perfect but it's not only the river impacted by the last fortnight's rain: despite a plethora of fallen trees everything is rotten and doing wet-firelighting for real is hard graft - splitting logs with knives and axes gets a fire going with the help of some fire dragon tablets, but although it gives our wet legs some respite, it's not enough comfort for a group and we decide to get moving again to warm up and find a better place to camp. The weather clears a little as we reach the outskirts of a town and spot reindeer roaming on both banks of the river. A campsite is reached and kit transported 500m.
Day 4. Freeze-dried food gives someone else cramps and squits but nothing serious. We suspect the meal cooking times are wrong and that it's not being hydrated properly and causing bowel irritation for some.
Route for the day is 30km of flat water into a headwind, but a campfire site on an island on the lake is reached. We meet a German kayak guide who informs us 2m waves are possible in a storm on the open water. Simon, an experienced kayaker, looks shattered having successfully shepherded the team down every rapid. Everyone else is tired, many haven't drunk enough water and a few accidents are narrowly averted. The ground is very soft and loose and as the rain starts again the team make extra-long tent pegs to ensure their tents stay up. But hey – Phase 1 completed!
Day 5. Heavy rain all night and morning but the last of the squits for 2 of the team. Grim start, but atmospheric with huge forested islands towering ahead of us in the gloom.
The objective is to follow a chain of islands up the middle of the lake then cross it. This is the lake of the weather gods and storms can be seen in the distance in almost every direction. One is following us. We get our first warm sunshine since the start and rest up on an island for lunch, but not for long as the clouds gather, pushing us on. The rain catches us and conditions become rough, forcing us to raft up. After what seems an age, eventually we fight our way through, our island destination lit up by the end of a rainbow as if we are being guided to sanctuary.
The weather clears and the team get washed, kit hung to dry etc. Even a fishing rod is rigged up.
Day 6. Finally nice weather. Craig cooks bannock for breakfast on the fire. Kit is dry, morale up. A field dressing station is set up as people sort out various ailments and wounds. We set out to move further up the forested archipelago and cross to the western side of the lake.
Various storms threaten us and it becomes a game of cat and mouse, choosing moments of good weather (when it's really hot) to bolt across to the next body of land. Lunch is taken on a stunning island and there's a face-to-face encounter with a curious reindeer. Another gap in the weather and we reach the western coast of the lake. The midges are out. We decide to take advantage of the long days and keep going after dinner. We huddle in a tiny islet of rocks as one storm passes overhead, then we get an amazing dead calm and push on.
We find ourselves on a small, tree-less island in the middle of a sea, covered in cloudberries with dozens of small birds flitting around. It appears an error has been made with a bearing and we are 30 degrees off course! In the right direction! We've taken a huge shortcut but take no chances – while the lake is calm we push on again to avoid getting stranded. That night we arrive late at a wilderness hut, washing in front of the fire as the mist comes out of the trees and onto the lake; a sunset at 1am.
Day 7. We rest up for a late start. Nice weather again but just as we set off we discover our water source is contaminated with rotten fish and dead rats. A stop is made further on, water boiled and all equipment including filters sterilised. From there we are into a fjord – almost 18km, paddling staring into infinity up a long channel with dead calm as the sun goes down. Fishing rods are deployed to try some trolling.
There is no wind, no noise save for us and we glide effortlessly through the vacuum. It is so quiet, Wayne and I scouting ahead inadvertently lose sight of everyone - a major no-no. We'd still been able to hear voices and hadn't looked back. Turns out a fishing line snag delayed the others. We apologise once the rest of the team catch up and we push on to our final rest stop for the day.
We have dinner watching trout we've been unable to catch jumping in the water, the sunset sky reflected in it all around us. That night we reach a Sami Kota, we sleep in a ring inside it. Phase 2 completed! 99km in 3 days.
Day 8. We wake an old Sami fellow in a hut a few hundred metres from our Kota to move his boat so we can cross from one lake to another via a trolley system. He's most interested and helpful. As soon as we are on the other side the conditions change drastically from the serene sunsets of the night before – a cold wind blowing straight down the lake from the Arctic and grey skies make us feel we've crossed into Narnia.
Few people travel the route we're taking. All we know is that it is difficult and there are rocks and swamp. As if to spell it out for us, the very first obstacle is a boulder garden where on the map a river should be. It takes us a few portages to get the routine right but by the end of the day we've done 7 and covered 18km, ahead of schedule, not to mention discovered a few new smells in the swamps and seen a reindeer and her young flit past.
Our campsite is a perfect spot with a fallen tree by a stream between 2 lakes. It's taken a while to get our camp routine slick but by now this one goes up in minutes. We even get a dry night.
Day 9. It couldn't last, and not long after dawn the first showers start. Morale is high though – there are only 8km to the canoe drop-off point at a Sami village: we could be hiking by the afternoon! All that's between us is a river we don't have much info on. We might be able to paddle all the way to the village. With the water levels high what could possibly go wrong?
11 hours later, we trudge into the village campsite with our rucksacks, exhausted, soaking wet, kit bloodied and the team a man down ...
Things started well with good progress crossing a series of small lakes then, as we started to run out of runnable river, we missed the landing point for a portage trail/veneti. This led to unloading the canoes thigh deep in cold water as the rain joined in. Inspection of the portage trail showed a broken, rotten veneti (like a railway line of logs you can drag a boat over), 800m long down a hill so we opted to carry kit and try and float the canoes down. A bad decision as it turned out.
It worked the first time despite repeated trips up and down the hill through soaking wet undergrowth in the rain. We stop for a brew at a campfire site to get our heads together. The site hadn't seen human activity in well over a year or two – all the wood had gone and the last person left a log taken from the actual log store itself with a token 2 matches in a wet box. The mozzies were moving in as an axe was used to contact split the log into a fire lay and get a fire going and re-warm as we use gas to get the brews on.
We cracked on to find ourselves well and truly treed a few hundred metres down river on a giant set of slippery boulders. Wayne and I on point had just got our canoe to the end of it when there was a thud as Simon slipped and landed on a boulder. Oof! "Medic" he groaned as several of us chuckled. "Medic" he shouted again. Craig was first on the scene and shouted for the suture kit. He and I, who both did significant Wilderness First Aid training beforehand and had been taught sutures almost as an afterthought, find ourselves facing a deep 4 inch laceration in Simon's foot, on a boulder in a river. At least it had stopped raining. I prepped the suture kit, flushed out the wound and kept swabbing blood to keep it clear, as Craig stitched the wound so well, complete with iodine patch, that the hospital staff left it alone when they saw it later.
As for Simon himself, despite 3 bottles of saline being shoved into the wound and squeezed out, and 8 stitches going in, all without anaesthetic or painkillers, he never yelped once.
Meanwhile the rest of the team rallied round. Don and Wayne got hot drinks and sugary snacks to the first aiders and kept Simon hydrated and warm; Mick organised the canoes and equipment ready for the off as Nick got up on a small hill to signal to the incoming helicopter. This arrived after just over an hour, landing several hundred metres away, the team helping the medics to get Simon off the rocks, nearly losing one of them to injury in the process.
The team watched the helicopter depart and, though deeply sad to lose Simon, also learned how everyone back at our HQ office was following us on our Inreach and Twitter, which boosted morale. All that remained was getting 6 of us and 4 canoes to the end: another set of rapids too shallow to run (and - thanks to very slippery rocks, dangerous to line - saw several of the team waste deep in water floating canoes down to each other) and 2 portages later, we finally landed at the final beach, met by a friendly Finnish laphund, 11 hours after setting out that day. We'd travelled 8km. We camped around another Sami Kota and planned a much-needed lie-in.
Phase 3 completed. We'd paddled and portaged a total distance of 220km in 9 days. Tired? Possibly.
Day 9. The Sun has got his hat on, hip-hip hooray! A lovely morning spent re-packing kit ready for the trek whilst taking advantage of the local Sami village and sampling a big pile of Finnish pancakes and jam. And another. And possibly another. All washed down with coffee and fresh bilberry juice. Oh go on then, one more.
We rolled out of camp and, having stopped by the local Skolt Sami museum, a language now spoken by fewer than three hundred people, we set out on the final trek (kiitos for pointing out the trailhead, ladies).
Despite the trail through the forest being pretty level it feels harder than it should do, with oppressive humidity and rocky or boggy ground to contend with, not to mention that our packs feel like ten-ton weights and everything seems to be hurting at once.
A wilderness hut is our target for the night and we reach it successfully despite passing 2 streams without re-filling our bottles because, due to a navigation error, we thought we had less distance to camp than we thought and no one wanted to stop to fill-up. Then we discovered we'd got a few km further to go and everyone was out of water. Proper balls up. We've broken our own 'water and food on demand' maxim.
We are lucky it didn't end up as a serious mistake. As we wait for the filters and purifiers to work before we can hydrate, we decide from that point on that whenever we pass a good water source, if your bottles are half full or less you drink it all and fill up again without fail. We never have a water problem again.
Day 2. The forest is getting smaller and sparser every few km's. Bouts of bright hot sunshine are interspersed with passing squalls. We put up a tarp and huddle under it whenever each storm passes, avoiding getting drenched. On one such occasion the entire team fall asleep where they lay for 45 mins. We reach a section of forest where a naturally occurring parasite has decimated the mountain birch, so we walk through an eerie landscape of dead trees, like something out of ancient legends.
1 of the team is starting to hit the wall and flag badly and it's slow going. By the end of the day our objective is still a long way off, so when we reach a hut Don suggests stopping early to get everyone 12 hours' rest and have to put in a big shift the day after. And when we say 'have to', we mean we'd have to go on half rations for 2 days if we didn't make it. Our fatigued party is put to bed early as we all eat and get our heads down.
Day 3. 28km or bust. Thankfully everyone got their legs at the same time as the forest opened out into the bogs and fells of the sub-Arctic tundra. Walking conditions aren't dissimilar to hill-walking in the UK and we start making really good progress.
We arrive at a wilderness hut and meet a group of young French lads who'd hiked down from Norway on a fishing trip. They'd caught fish but were heading back in the same direction as us. They go on ahead as we stop for lunch, Mick spotting a big bird of prey that looks like a buzzard as we do so. I go off to answer the call of nature and return to find almost everyone asleep - Nick lying like a vampire with his arms crossed amidst a line of bodies!
Back on the trail, there are gorgeous bilberries everywhere, each handful scoffed feels like magic potion to the body.
In between the fells are lots of bogs and mires, requiring careful negotiation if you don't want wet boots. Everyone is firing on all cylinders again and we cover the 28km needed and arrive at the final wilderness hut next to a lake under a fell. We find the French lads lying up in there, as well as an old Finn who's very helpful despite speaking no English, pointing out which lake to fetch water from.
One of the French lads speaks good English – turns out they'd run out of food and were living off snack bars and heading back the next day; half of them were asleep, so we neglect to enforce our right to evict them from the hut (the last people to arrive for the day must be given priority) and make camp in the scrub and mountain birch for our last night. I am falling asleep as I put my tent up and can barely stay awake as I report in on our sat phone that we're going to finish the next day.
We wave goodbye to the old Finn as he sets off with his pack for an evening hike to wherever he's heading.
Day 4. A walk in the park, were it not for the fact it's over 7 steep fells. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow! As we reach the Norwegian border and follow the fence it's like a big dipper. The worst part is that we can see it ahead of us.
There's lots of cloudberries and bilberries to scoff though, the reindeer are watching from a distance and even the mozzies have come out to see us off.
We pass the old Finn by his tent. He's being very helpful again but I can only understand about 10% of what he's trying to tell me, if that. Crucially though, I can count in Finnish and I get the bit about it being further to the end of the trail than it says on the map. So, we'd 5km further to go than we thought. This is useful, as we will need to stop for lunch and call ahead to change our ETA for pick-up.
We cross more rivers and bogs and I disappear in one up to my thigh and have to be hauled out. I squelch the rest of the way. As we finally spot the finish line from the top of the last fell a big grin and a sense of happiness washes over me as we walk down through a sea of bilberry bushes, thinking back over 14 months of preparation, from concept to building a team to planning and departure, almost at its end. I am back there again as I write this.
Mick and I are last over the finish line. As packs are dropped a grinning Don picks me up in a big bear hug and as he puts me down Craig and Wayne jump on me in celebration. I will never forget that moment.
We'd done it: River. Lake. Swamp. Tundra.
... And now 3NC Lapland 2016 in 1 minute (aka what happens when a completely unrelated video interview soundtrack gets handed to professional TV editors with our trek footage!):
Why the team joined the Challenge
Click the names below to discover their stories
"It’s sad to say that just about most people have suffered a loss in their family to cancer. I lost my Nan to cancer; from diagnosis to losing her was very quick. She was very loved and I must have spoken to her most weeks, and it was very painful to not be able to speak to her again due to this evil disease. I am ex-Forces and a very keen Tri-Athlete and outdoor pursuits person. I have taken part in many organised competitions to raise as much sponsorship for any cancer trust, to help eradicate this evil disease in any way I can.
The Challenge for me is a way of focusing my energy and working with some brilliant colleagues to raise a fantastic amount of money via you fantastic people for Guy's and St Thomas', so they can investigate and understand the workings of Triple Negative Breast Cancer and BRCA Genetic Cancers, and destroy this evil disease."
My mother was the classic matriarch of the family. A venerable powerhouse constantly striving for her brood and all those she interacted with to be their best. She was much loved by all. She had been battling with breast cancer for some time. We all thought it had gone away. However, the disease came back and she had to start another round of chemotherapy. Undeterred, and with a little box attached to her injecting her on an hourly bases with a concoction of chemicals, she went to ski the Vallée Blanche - an epic glacial alpine route. We still have the photograph of her holding her chemotherapy box in her ski suite with Mont Blanc in the background.
She sat me down a few months later and said: "Nick I've only got 6 months left to live, this chemotherapy has just been buying me some time as this has gone to my liver, how am I going to tell your siblings?"
That was all 21 years ago. Every time I hear of people I am close to, having to go through this painful journey, it really hits me. This Challenge will test me and provide an opportunity to raise money for a very worthy cause. Death comes to all of us – but doing it in your 40s is a really bad idea.
In some way we have all been affected by the evils of cancer. For me personally, my father-in-law went through a very intensive treatment process, before sadly passing away nearly 5 years ago. The pain and suffering that we went through as a family was intense and anything that can be done to try and combat this terrible disease is something that I am passionate to be involved with.
With my background in the British Army, my love of the outdoors, and my passion for supporting activities to rid the world of this horrendous disease, the Challenge gives the opportunity to combine all of this.
Being involved with a great team with similar backgrounds and passions is one that I am extremely enthusiastic to be involved with.
Cancer is never far away. It took my mother-in-law last year after a 4 year battle with kidney cancer and has claimed a number of other close family members over the years. My wife is a Macmillan nurse dealing with this terrible disease on a daily basis and so as a family it’s hard to switch off from the impact that cancer has on society.
Prevention is better than treatment and so getting involved in the Challenge to me is a way of supporting the research into preventing cancer. As the only non ex-military person on the team it’s a step out of the comfort zone for me in what we are attempting. The team is an amazing group of lads though with a real desire to make a difference and so hopefully as a keen kayaker I can bring some good water experience to the team.
It’s safe to say that we all lead busy lives! It’s also safe to say that whilst we always empathise, support, and give freely of our time for our friends, family, and loved ones in the most difficult of times, it always feels that we have a modicum of control…
In February 2015 I felt that I lost control of my world, as well as the ability to protect the one person who I truly love. A simple statement "I have something really bad to tell you" and your life pauses for a second, whilst your mind goes into overdrive … is my dad back in hospital? Has something happened to one of our family or close friends? Is she leaving me?
Another simple statement: "I’ve found a lump in my breast and I have a hospital appointment next week" and your superpowers leave you in an instant. A surreal journey begins when every conversation with a specialist seems to deliver another hammer blow, and yet you look across the table at the person who you’d give everything for, stand strong, take control, and move forward. My partner was diagnosed with an aggressive form of triple negative cancer, informed she was just unlucky to do so. She endured her operation, followed by the customary chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and yet she never missed a day of work, never missed a call from friends, and was always there for everybody in her customary selfless and supportive manner. She never complained, she never faltered. We had tears, lots of them, and mostly mine!
Cancer is a vicious, uncompromising and cruel disease, and nobody deserves to feel its embrace. However if the time ever comes that you
do, I pray that you have, or find the strength that she had throughout her treatment, and that you are lucky enough to find and embrace the support of the best doctors and care nurses who are without a doubt real-life unsung heroes.
Last year I endured and she conquered. This year I am hoping to endure and conquer by completing the Challenge! Firstly, to honour her in some small way for her bravery, determination, selflessness and strength that kept us all together throughout last year. Secondly, to raise awareness and funding for Guy's and St Thomas’ Triple Negative Breast Cancer and BRCA Mutation Research and thirdly ...
Well to undertake an expedition with some truly inspirational and caring colleagues, so that we may all help one another accept where we are today, and how we may help others and ourselves moving forwards. From experience we can never truly say thank you enough for all of the care we receive, especially from the specialist care services who give selflessly and at great personal cost. So if by completing this Challenge we can help to give a little something back, a little something that may over time help to lead to a breakthrough for BRCA or associated conditions. Isn’t that a challenge worth completing, a cause worth funding, and an absolute honour to be a part of? I for one think so.
I lost my father to cancer very suddenly in 2009. The day he was told in a hospital cubicle with my mother and I in attendance: "It's cancer" to the day he passed was 6 weeks, his reaction to the news will stay with me forever. I saw the man who defined who I am become a frail shadow of his former self in the blink of an eye. Our daily conversations/guidance/mentoring had gone in half a quarter. No Pop to share in my lads playing U16/U18 England Rugby/A Levels/University/work promotions and everything else life throws at you. I have come to terms with my loss, now I have a bloody minded focus on doing something about this awful disease and making the most of 'everyday' both in and outside of work, I am also part of the Cisco Cancer Support Leadership team. The Challenge will fulfil my lust for being pushed mentally/physically and will be a big part of my final coming to terms with 'That' experience which I will never forget. We will raise a huge amount of money for Guy's and St Thomas', so they can challenge the current understanding of Triple Negative Breast Cancer and BRCA Genetic Cancers – what could be a more worthy cause? I am stoked about this adventure and the team around me, I was a Mountain-Exped leader in the Forces and have a love of the outdoors.
Following Simon's injury, the remaining 6 of the 2016 team set out on the final trek.